How Can We Know What To Be When We Grow Up?

Cassidy Brock

Why does society expect students to know what to do with their lives at such a young age? There is already enough pressure placed on young students to be perfect, get good grades, make friends and be respectful. Elementary-aged students are more caught up in acquiring new hobbies, not being pestered throughout the most crucial years of their growing up about what they want to do when they are fully grown. 

For as long as I can remember, teachers frequently asked the class, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” at the ripe age of six. Of course, I’d say “a doggy doctor,” which was a veterinarian. I later found out that they didn’t get to consistently help animals and unfortunately, my naive self cried when I was told that they have to put some animals to sleep. 

I respect and understand the need to get young children critically thinking especially about the whole sea of career opportunities. But why was there so much pressure? Why were kids who still needed the teacher to tie their shoes in class being asked what they wanted to do in 20 years for the rest of their life until they retire? I would assume that most five-year-olds do not know what the word “retirement” even means and I wouldn’t expect them to. 

When I was 12 years old, I said I wanted to be a therapist, and that one stuck for a few years. Why was I googling the salary of a licensed mental health counselor while I was in the seventh grade? Wasn’t I supposed to be finishing the last chapter of “A Long Walk to Water” and analyzing quotes for homework? 

The one thing I held onto was the fact that I’ve always wanted to help people. In high school, I was so lost. I could not have been more confused, but I always loved English. I couldn’t find the fine line that determined whether English was my favorite subject, a combination of compulsively reading and writing or if this was a potential career path. 

I started college as a Communication Disorders major. I had speech therapy growing up and was fascinated by what Speech-Language Pathologists could do. I dove in head-first and was already signed up for Linguistics classes before I had the chance to realize that this was far more scientifically involved than I had anticipated. I’d rather read books and write stories. 

Now, I am an English major and I know this is where I belong, but what do I do once I graduate? Do I go into journalism? Education? Become an author? Get my doctorate and be a professor at a university? Just because I feel a sense of belonging in my chosen major does not mean I have it all figured out. I blank out when people ask me what I’m going to do with my degree. I genuinely have no clue whatsoever.

While reflecting on these situations that I could only imagine are relatable especially amongst our generation, I realized that it would’ve been far more beneficial to me if teachers had asked what I was interested in or what I was passionate about as opposed to what I wanted to be in the unforeseeable, distant future. When you’re so young time goes slow, and what elementary kid should be burdened with this thought that will surely be burned in the back of their mind?

Children should be playing made up games out on the lawn at recess and learning addition and subtraction, not pondering what big shoes their little feet will fill in some twenty-odd years. 

The notion that kids need to name one specific occupation that they are fascinated by at one moment in their life doesn’t hold much weight, but being pestered about it for years throughout the public school system does. 

According to Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at Wharton University, this is one of the most harmful things you could ask a young child. 

In an article published by CNBC on Feb. 18, 2021, Grant said, “Some kids dream too small. They foreclose on following in family footsteps and never really consider alternatives. Some face the opposite problem: They dreamed too big, becoming attached to a lofty vision that wasn’t realistic.” What is the point in asking a kid this, just to shut them down because it isn’t possible or to make them feel guilty because it isn’t deemed “good enough?”

As these kids grow up and start to consider college or trade school, the thought still hangs over their head. In the article, Grant stated, “The danger of these plans is that they can give us tunnel vision, blinding us to alternative possibilities.” 

So while kids are transitioning into adulthood, it’s easy to forget that we are always changing, and the world is always changing. A new calling may come, but can be lost if someone is fixated with a narrow tunnel vision mindset, whether it’s about the career itself or the income or the benefits and insurance that come with it. 

There are things that have yet to be created and careers that have yet to arise by the time that today’s five-year-olds could be pursuing in 15 or 20 years. New majors will develop in colleges the way they have over the past 30 years or so. New forms of media have yet to be invented, but that’s how it all works. Everything comes from something else. The jobs we are striving to get were born from generations that precede us.